Cannibal Ox’s 2001 opus, The Cold Vein, doesn’t translate universally. In a climate like Central Florida – where cold means covered shins and shoulders, not bitter blasts of wind that leave exposed skin frostbitten – the translation can be even further out of reach. Somewhere between Nas’ Illmatic and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, chainsawing the strife of futuristic metropolitan life out of an ice block, The Cold Vein would’ve dripped with pessimism if the indie-rap classic were warm enough to melt at all. Powered by Definitive Jux honcho El-P’s punishing production, MCs Vast Aire and Vordul Mega detailed the violence of their hyperreality-soaked New York City street, a place where a pigeon was a screaming phoenix and chalky outlines on the ground were father figures. Even as independent hip-hop was at a creative peak and on the cusp of a much larger commercial impact with acts like Atmosphere, Aesop Rock and MF Doom releasing brain-twitching bangers, Cannibal Ox’s debut was unlike anything seen in the genre, then or now. It’s hard to follow that up.
“As a person who lives `hip-hop culture`, good music is always going to be good music. Bad music is always going to be bad music,” says Vast Aire, in a symmetrically philosophical tone that isn’t far from his on-record flow. “But that’s the trick; the definitions of good and bad change according to the circles that we allow ourselves to be in or placed in.”
The circular nature of fickle pop culture has turned its back on the indie-rap lane occupied by 30-year-old Vast (whose third solo album, Dueces Wild, is released this week). At the beginning of this decade, the artists on Definitive Jux and Rhymesayers were gritty responses to hip-hop’s jiggy era; now, everyone wants to dance. Gas is too expensive for driving music and global warming has taken the bite out of all things cold. Underground hip-hop became established; new developments can now be compared to the earlier portion of the catalog, and dwelling in that venerated position breeds a stymied loop of sameness.
Dueces Wild, intentionally misspelled to reflect the dues the artist has paid, is the MC’s most reflective work yet. Gone are the heavy metaphors of The Cold Vein and in their place is the honesty of a man willing to reveal himself in metered verse. The realities of ghetto America remain, both in the world at large and in Vast Aire’s lyrics, but it’s less sonically apocalyptic this time.
“Why is `The Cold Vein’s` ‘Iron Galaxy’ the same story as Melle Mel? I’m in a different generation,” Vast says of “The Message,” hip-hop’s keystone protest song. “‘Iron Galaxy’ was showing you that nothing has changed. We’re still in the broken glass and the pissy elevators and there’s still crackheads.”
Many of the devastating socioeconomic parables that made The Cold Vein so powerful are sidestepped on Dueces Wild, as they have been on the majority of Vast Aire’s solo work. Vast’s distinct voice and delivery – one that plays puns and punchlines like two sides of the same coin – focuses more on rap’s canon and his relationships with women. On “Mecca and the Ox,” which sees Vast reunite with Vordul Mega over a Pete Rock production that easily ranks among his most synthetic, Vast Aire begins his verse by threatening, “You can catch a beatdown or get beaten up,” as if the difference between the options is monumental. Elsewhere, “The Crush” flips the classic hip-hop love song with a sound that love-joneses for classic LL Cool J at least as much as for the adolescent crush spoken of in the song.
Vast Aire studies Bushido culture, and he wonders why it takes months for a sword to be melted but only minutes for fire to crumple the World Trade Center’s steel. He’s wary of corruption, even inside the hip-hop culture he holds so close to his heart.
“Y’all be leaking albums, man,” says Vast, accusatorily. “Young writers be blowing records up, putting them up on those websites. That’s foul. Let people live. You’re supposed to be the most righteous writer who understands hip-hop, but you’re leaking records. That’s the corruption from within the culture. You want to leak Ghostface’s record and then you get mad that Ghostface don’t sell.”
Times have changed. The Internet has completely altered the way people consume news, dialogue and especially music. Records leak.
“`The Cold Vein` was too much; it still is too much. Dueces Wild is a ripple of that splash. Ain’t nothing changed, I’m still dealing with everything that I dealt with on Cold Vein: heartache, inner-city living, America, growth, loyalty, honesty, deceit, liars, rats, snakes. Everything I went through on Cold Vein that I thought I understood, I now understand on a whole other level and that is what Dueces Wild is. Life is a crazy card game, so take the hand you’re dealt and just wing it. Just do the best you can with the hand you got.”firstname.lastname@example.org